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Campaigning Ends in Indonesia's Aceh Province


Election campaigning has come to an end in Indonesia's Aceh province just days ahead of its first-ever direct elections for governor and other top posts. The landmark vote is expected to cement the peace deal between the government and members of the former separatist group, the Free Aceh Movement. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Banda Aceh has more.

Singers and magicians entertain hundreds of Acehnese in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh as they wait to hear a candidate for governor speak at one of the last election rallies before campaigning came to an end Thursday.

Acehnese will head to the polls on December 11 to choose the province's governor, deputy, and 19 local officials.

This election would have been unthinkable before the 2004 tsunami roared through Aceh killing more than 160,000 people and destroying over 800 kilometers of the province's coastline and most of its infrastructure.

But that devastating event paved the way for peace talks between the government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, with both sides agreeing peace was essential in order to rebuild the tsunami-ravaged province.

In August 2005, the government and GAM signed a peace deal in Helsinki, Finland ending a nearly 29-year-long conflict that claimed over 15,000 lives, the vast majority civilians.

But while peace has held in Aceh, GAM, which is fielding two candidates in next week's elections, has split between those who were based in Aceh throughout the conflict, and those who are loyal to the GAM leadership in Sweden, where the group maintained a government-in-exile during the war.

Sidney Jones, the Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group says the split within GAM may make it harder for the group to transform itself from a guerrilla movement to a political force.

"I think it's less over issues, the split, that it is over perceptions of what Aceh is and should become and perceptions over who did what during the conflict," said Jones. "I think it does have ramifications for the future becauseā€¦it will be all that much harder to organize a political party when you have this infighting."

As part of the peace agreement, former GAM rebels were granted full amnesty and the opportunity to form a local political party.

GAM also dropped its bid for independence in exchange for a wide-ranging autonomy that includes the control of 70 percent of revenue from Aceh's rich oil and gas resources, while the Jakarta government agreed to withdraw its troops.

Amnazir, who was a GAM commander for 16 years before the peace deal, says during a campaign rally that things are improving in Aceh, but the emphasis now must be on the province's economic future.

He says GAM must stay united in order to bring prosperity to Aceh.

Officials at the Aceh Electoral Commission say several thousand international and local observers will be monitoring Monday's elections.